In the poorest places in the world, an eye disease called trachoma is robbing women of their dignity, their hope for the future, and even their ability to ensure the survival of their children.
"Trachoma" sounds like a remote or obscure disease, but this bacterial infection used to exist throughout the world, including in the United States and in my own native Great Britain.
Only a few decades ago, wealthy nations wiped out the disease through improvements in access to medical care and sanitation.
Yet, trachoma lingers in the most neglected countries on earth, with more than 320 million people remaining at risk. It has been estimated that the economic cost of trachoma could be as high as U.S. $4 billion to 6 billion, an unimaginable sum to communities who live on less than two dollars a day.
The human toll of trachoma, however, is incalculable.
Children are the main carriers of trachoma in endemic areas, and mothers are exposed to the infection through something as simple as an embrace or wiping a child's dirty face.
Over the years, repeated trachoma infections scar the eyelid, causing the eyelashes to turn inward. The condition, called trichiasis, becomes excruciating as the eyelashes scrape the cornea with every blink.
Families, already at the edge of survival, must consider how they will cope as a mother or grandmother slowly becomes blind.
We believe 4.6 million families face this crisis today.
Faced with the shame of being a burden to her family, a woman with trichiasis may make a terrible choice -- to have a family member help her to pluck out her own eyelashes, sometimes using tweezers fashioned from a rusty piece of scrap metal or tin can.
For some, this horrific disfigurement far outweighs the pain and disability of trichiasis.
No one should have to make that choice.
With help from our partners in endemic communities, blinding trachoma is being wiped out once and for all using simple, low cost tools: health education, encouraging hand and face-washing, building latrines to improve environmental sanitation, antibiotic distribution to treat active infections, and free, 15-minute surgeries conducted by locally trained health workers to treat the end stage of trachoma.
Ghana, in partnership with The Carter Center and others, became the first sub-Saharan African country to wipe out blinding trachoma using these very tools in 2008. With the support of the international community, Mali, Niger, and Sudan (all poorly ranked on the Human Development Index) are on target to do the same in 2015.
Worldwide, a coalition of organizations including The Carter Center seeks to end trachoma by 2020.
Neglected diseases like trachoma may not be as well known as HIV/AIDS or malaria, but they also are not as far removed from the developed world as we think.
Trachoma-endemic communities themselves have prioritized wiping out trachoma forever, and it's a vision we all can support.
Together, we can behold a brighter future.
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